As proven by the election of Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, one of the most powerful votes in America is the Black vote. Since the Voting Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed voter suppression tactics and enforced the 15th Amendment, Black communities have assumed a great deal of political sway. Unfortunately, it is rarely tapped in to. This places the responsibility of educating the community of their political power on the shoulders of Black institutions and pillars, such as our churches, newspapers barbershops, and salons.
Two such institutions in Broward County took on this charge, holding an informative gathering where state and local candidates had the opportunity to speak directly to Black voters. The Westside Gazette Editorial Board’s 2nd Annual Sweet Potato Pie, Politics, and Ice Cream event was held at the historical Mount Hermon AME Church in Fort Lauderdale on August 18th. This highly attended event allowed voters to engage candidates in face-to-face dialogue concerning issues of importance to the Black community. Despite it being the first day of early voting in Florida, candidates took the time to literally serve the community with “a slice of a pie, a scoop of ice cream, and a side of political conversation.”
The attendees ranged from School Board aspirants to Congressional and Judicial candidates, all eager to literally “sit at the table” with the community. Despite the wide range of interests represented by the political hopefuls, particular topics dominated the general conversation. What stood out most as a community concern was criminal justice and the roles judges play in ensuring equity in the courtroom and in our personal lives.
“There are some real problems in our judicial system,” emphasized Gordon Weekes, the Chief Assistant Public Defender at Broward County’s Public Defender’s Office, “There is a huge disparity where Black folks are receiving more severe punishments than any other group.”
Weekes, who has served Broward County as Assistant Public Defender for over 20 years and is currently seeking the Public Defender seat in 2020, was referencing the thorough 2016 investigation conducted by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune where reporters uncovered an undeniable racial bias in Florida’s sentencing system. According to the study, white judges in Florida sentence Black defendants far harsher than their white counterparts. The ideal solution is to elect more minority judges who provide a cultural perspective and, thus, fair, balanced sentencing.
“There are 90 judges in Broward County,” stated Stephanie Moon, an African American candidate for Circuit Court Judge- Group 38, “Only nine of them look like us.” Moon has over 20 years of practicing law at the state and federal level. She is seeking the seat of Judge Ilona M. Holmes, who is set to retire at the end of this term.
Broward County Court Judge – Group 19 candidate, Jackie Powell, echoed the same sentiments, stressing the need for the racial demographic of judges to mirror the reality of the county.
“It is important that we are fairly represented,” she stated, “We should be able to bring our cultural experiences and cultural knowledge in the courtroom in order to sentence fairly.”
- James Curry, candidate for Circuit Court Judge Group 46, who has 25 years of experience in the Juvenile Justice system, knows all too well the role race plays in the courtroom. Studies have shown that, Black and Latino students have much higher rates of disciplinary action against them than white students, which greatly contribute to their eventual over-representation in jails and prisons.
“The racial bias is real in the judiciary system,” Curry stated, “I aim to dispel that with my understanding of community values and culture. I will make fair judgements.”
In addition to fair racial representation, candidates emphasized the need for judges to have a fine-tuned moral compass and true commitment to justice. So far this year, 13 judges have announced their departure from the bench. Although some will retire, others have submitted abrupt resignations following highly publicized substance abuse issues, DUIs, consistent absences, and courtroom misconduct.
This places a great deal of pressure on judges to not only judge fairly and exercise compassion, but stand as positive representations of the judicial system to the public.
Alan B. Schneider, candidate for Circuit Judge, Group 8 and an attorney with nearly 30 years experience, emphasized his moral commitment to justice with quotes from Deuteronomy 16:18-20 that discuss the responsibility of the people to appoint judges who judge honorably and without partiality.
“’Justice, justice you shall pursue’” quoted Alan B. Schneider, candidate for Circuit Judge, Group 8, “That is in my heart and that is my commitment to this county.”
Shari Africk-Olefson, candidate for Broward Circuit Court judge and an accomplished lawyer, author, business woman, and civic activist, added the dedication to justice extends beyond the courtroom.
“It is important that a judge show impartiality in all aspect of their lives and remain committed to courtesy and respect, “ Africk-Olefson said.
Although criminal justice dominated the dialogue, perhaps attributed to the number of judicial candidates in attendance, city and county commissioner candidates were eager to discuss their ideas on how to improve the day-to-day lives of citizens.
Ray Martin, a candidate for the City of Lauderhill Commissioner, Seat 4, stressed his desire to turn the city around, focusing on crime reduction and increasing home ownership. A native of Lauderhill, Martin aims to serve his hometown with the same dedication as he served the country. Martin is a retired U.S. Army Major of 22 years.
“When I mention the crime in Lauderhill I get the response ‘Oh, that’s just Lauderhill,” Martin explained, “But in the military we learned you are only as strong as your weakest link and I want to strengthen Lauderhill.”
Candidate for County Commission, District 4, Shari McCartney echoed the importance of public safety. As the former mayor for the City of Oakland Park, McCartney understands the commitment it takes to change a city and hopes to employ the same tactics to the county as a whole.
“As mayor of Oakland Park, I got things done,” she said, “Together, we turned that city around. I want to do the same for District 4.” McCartney prioritizes modernizing her district’s infrastructure, improving public transportation, and, most importantly, keeping taxes low while ensuring fiscal responsibility.
Considering the national attention Broward County Public Schools District has received since this year’s tragic February 14th mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, naturally the dialogue shifted towards the importance of school safety and the steps necessary to ensure Broward Schools provide adequate support for students, teachers, and administrators.
“We have some significant challenges in our schools,” stated Mike Olbel, School Board Candidate, District 7, “However, I see them as opportunities to demand and make changes.”
Olbel is vying for the seat occupied by School Board member and current Chair, Nora Rupert. District 7 covers Lighthouse Point, Hillsboro Beach, Pompano Beach, Deerfield Beach, Margate and Coconut Creek.
Also in attendance was current School Board Countywide, Seat 8 incumbent, Donna Korn, who is running in one the most heated School Board races against challenger Ryan Petty. Petty’s daughter, Alaina, 14,was tragically killed in the Stoneman Douglas shooting. Petty accuses the board of “being ready to move on” without making significant changes while Korn’s campaign has brought to light racist tweets made by Petty between 2008 and 2013. Still, Korn, a former teacher, pledges to focus on district-wide issues.
“We have to ensure resources are allocated to all schools,” Korn stated, “And not concentrated in one area.” Korn is also an advocate for expanding mental health services support in the district’s schools.
Broward Public Schools Superintendent, Robert Runcie, received rousing applause from the audience after sharing an overview of the challenges and accomplishments realized during his tenure as Superintendent. He attributed the success to everyone involved, “From the Board Members to the custodians, the energy, passion, dedication, knowledge and skills of all those involved made the success possible, even the students.
His recapitulation of the state of the district in 2011, when he was hired until now was sobering and celebratory. He humbly recounts that he had to hit the ground running. “There was a pending penalty of $66 million for class size violations and a deteriorating financial condition. This was quickly fixed and the district has not seen a class size penalty in years. The district’s financial position has improved and it now has its highest grade from Wall Street bond rating agencies since the start of the recession in 2008.The district graduation rate which was 70.6% in 2010-11 has risen to 82.3% in 2016-17 (a 16.5% increase).”
Calls for Runcie’s resignation have dominated the school board race as parents of slain students and the Parkland community accuses him of unsatisfactory response to the shooting.
He poignantly recalled that tragic day at MSD, as he enumerated the various security measures that are being implemented in all schools for the safety of students and staff.
“Given the tragedy that fell upon our community earlier this year, safety and security is our biggest priority. However, public education is multifaceted and we cannot lose sight of our mission and promise to provide all kids with a high quality education. Broward’s trajectory of progress is strong and moving in the right direction to deliver on that promise. What is needed now, more than ever, is stable leadership to guide this ship through the storm and keep this momentum going.”
Tennille Doe-Decoste, candidate for Broward County School Board, District 4 seat, which includes Parkland ‘s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School could not attend. Doe-Decoste, a mother of 3, was dropping off her son, a recent Stoneman Douglas graduate, at his first year of college. Doe-Decoste’s son lost his best friend, Joaquin “Guac” Oliver, in the mass shooting.
The event received positive accolades from its attendees. Ms. Lorraine Jones, a recent transplant form Georgia, was excited about the turnout.
“I have only been in Broward for less than 90 days and was looking for a place to serve,” said Jones, “I am happy to see this event well attended and I’m looking forward to taking information back to everyone I know.”
“It is good to hear candidates and have an opportunity to ‘take them to the carpet’ so to speak,” added Ms. Karen Williams-Baugh, “It was a rare opportunity to speak directly to leadership, ask on the spot questions, and receive on the spot answers. I am not sure if events like this have happened in Miami-Dade.” Ms. Williams-Baugh has worked as an educator for nearly thirty years and currently teaches in the Miami-Dade Public School system.
Attendees represented an array of political backgrounds. George Farrell, Chairman of the BlakPac, an organization that supports conservative minority candidates, encouraged more events like these and emphasized the need to take advantage of early voting.
“I loved the event,” he said, “I believe it will increase the early voting turnout by several percent. Do not wait until August 28th. It is important we vote early to avoid provisional ballet issues and voter suppression. That is what they want. ”
Although registration for the August 28th primaries has passed, the deadline for the November 6, 2018 general election is October 9th. What has become most important is voter turnout, an area where Black voters need to improve in. Black voter turnout dropped dramatically post-Obama; however, it has never risen above 40 percent in any midterm election since 1964.
“Nearly 300,000 people have been removed from the rolls because they didn’t vote in the last three elections,” Congressman Alcee Hastings stated, “Its wrong but it is legal. We have to encourage our community to participate in the democratic process.” Congressman Hastings, one of the staunchest critics of Trump, is seeking re-election to Congress this year.
Dr. Barbara Sharief, County Commissioner, District 8, stressed the importance of voting, adding financial contributions to candidates, no matter how small, make a big difference.
“We saw what giving $1 did for the Obama campaign. Money doesn’t win campaigns, but votes do.” Commissioner Sharief pointed out. She referenced gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum’s struggle to raise money as a he runs against millionaires and billionaires able to fund their own campaigns. Gillum would be the first Black governor of Florida should he win.
The successful event provided an opportunity for the community to engage in bipartisan dialogue and get to know candidates on a more personal level. It reemphasized the power of the Black community to change the trajectory of their cities, counties, states, and the country as a whole.
“The flavor of this entire country depends on us,” said Bobby R. Henry, Sr., Publisher of The Westside Gazette, “It is up to us to take this country in the positive direction it should go.”